Positive4ColumnsMusic for the Dead and Resurrected is mostly made of leaps: the particulars of the past abrupt the present, but obscured or askew; family stories and images of everyday life are subtended by real or metaphorical burial grounds ... Narratives, images, and motifs recur, but there are lapses and gaps, unfulfilled lexical promises: Mort makes several references to learning music as a child, but a poem titled \'Singer\' turns out to be about a sewing machine of that brand. Domestic scenes return: apartments, meals, bus journeys, endless snow. Such mundane scenes fold into one another, become more and more involuted and mysterious ... it evolves in such intricate patterns of metaphor that nothing feels reducible either to autobiography or to straightforward witness. All is dissolved and diverted by (or into) extraordinary images ... Mort’s figural invention takes the poems in more ambiguous directions, amassing an image repertoire that vexes and haunts. So too her formal decisions ... The most striking thing in terms of language and structure is Mort’s tendency to let earlier lines, phrases, or single words return like ghosts from a page or two before, seeming now unsure where they belong.
Positive4ColumnsIt’s a witty, melancholic answer to a question that lurked and vexed until this year’s more alarming events took over: Who will write the novel of the UK’s Brexit calamity? ... a fragmentary, ironic study in fragmentary, innocent experience ... Guo is a savvy observer of the version of itself that London presents to the likes of her narrator ... The subtler aesthetic-emotional argument in the book is about Barthes, and the versions of love his writing implies ... Guo borrows Barthes’s tentative, laconic use of short, titled chapters with enigmatic epigraphs, the narrative parcelled up in precious interludes.
Rave4Columns... in Vigdis Hjorth’s newly translated 2012 novel, Long Live the Post Horn!, the saga of the EU postal directive is an inspired context for a story about personal despair and political awakening ... Ellinor is an engaging and funny narrator, ingrained despair the motor of her mordant humor, or at least sarcasm ... Long Live the Post Horn! becomes explicitly a novel about writing, its merits and its perils ... [Hjorth\'s] novel, despite Ellinor’s tone of sardonic disengagement, is also a treatise, in its way, on the nature of literature and commitment.
PositiveHarper\'sCharacter names at once an ideal or aspiration and an ineradicable mark; a state to be arrived at by will; and a condition requiring education, leadership, and propitious circumstance. \'Is character innate, learned, taught, or instilled? Are character traits fixed or changeable? Do they depend on heredity, on environment, on parents, teachers, mentors, or life experiences?\' Garber asks versions of these questions throughout, but she considers them chiefly literary—that is, \'questions about the way something means, rather than what it means,\' ... The strength of Garber’s book therefore lies less in adducing a present value for the concept than in her wide-ranging account of how we arrived at the confused and confusing things it has meant and means now ... Her account of character as a literary and cultural category, and how it has literally or figuratively been read in real or imaginary individuals, may well be the book’s strongest aspect. The modern understanding of character, she argues, is not just adjacent to, but actually derived from, fictional characters: their construction on the page, but also their concerns about the character of their peers ... The richness of this history is what makes Garber’s book fascinating, and also, perhaps, the reason she does not want to relinquish the idea at the last, and instead hopes that there is intellectual and ethical life in a word that has outlived its history.
Rave4 ColumnsThat her poems are...elegant, affecting, and verbally memorable—this has less to do with their taut confessional arc, and more with Sullivan’s balancing act between form and its discontents ... Sullivan exactly anatomizes an era, piling up details...in stanzas that quickly shake off the tight terza rima of her opening pages and loosen into long-lined Whitmanesque vistas of city nostalgia ... In its constellating of period detail, \'You, Very Young in New York\' can seem too predictably of its moment...but there’s a voice here other than the merely memorial ... Sullivan is quite brilliant at the level of the individual phrase, the strangely turned observation ... The ever-changing river is one thing, terrible and attractive enough, but there are also the duties and joys of order and repetition—even of tradition, in Sullivan’s generous congregation of influence.
Rave4 Columns...richly researched, elegantly written study ... Wade is particularly good at conjuring, out of her subjects’ living arrangements both mundane and mad, an image of time, place, and creative milieu ... Inevitably, the presence of Woolf dominates the book, but Wade leaves her story till last so that we have already gained a detailed sense of a Bloomsbury culture that was not \'Bloomsbury\' ... Wade manages to tell the familiar narrative of her last months in a wholly new way: as an industrious coda not just to a life, but to a whole way of life that prewar Bloomsbury had made possible ... Though the arduous and rarefied literary world it describes has long vanished, this book feels vivid and contemporary in a London where accommodation and property seem to determine who gets to be a writer or thinker. Against all that, Square Haunting pitches its lineage of radical community and solitary labor.
Marcial Gala, trans. by Anna Kushner
Positive4Columns...Gala’s novel travels about in time and space a little in the way the ghost does, dispersing anecdotes, regrets, and fragile hopes, never exactly settling into an agreed story. Throughout, the supposedly minor characters are more lucidly drawn than the family at the novel’s heart ... The Black Cathedralis finally not about larger ideas of redemption and the future at all, but about predictable paths of minor failure and major self-justification. It’s no accident that key events...happen during the early years of the Obama administration: there’s a pervasive sense of dashed hopes, business as usual, faith ignored or betrayed. That the disappointment in a black president is most persuasively expressed by a black murderer—this is just one of the novel’s more devious turns. Surprisingly, the only thing Gala’s characters seem to have unalloyed trust in is writing itself. Or rather, poetry in particular. There is hardly a voice here that doesn’t at some point tell how literature became a guiding principle or practice, a consolation or a route out of Cienfuegos and its religiosity, its violence, its hatred of women. Rimbaud, Villon, Ulrich von Hutten: the names circulate like so many romantic promises of escape in the face of Arturo Stuart’s mad authority.
Cathy Park Hong
Positive4ColumnsIn the first half of Minor Feelings, Hong moves between her experience and a wider survey of Asian American history ... The description of young friends hothousing each other, artistically and intellectually, to the edge of disaster is brilliantly done, but it comes with a lesson about race and gender ... Is it possible to concoct a bad English that would not trespass on but cohabit with the bad English of other persecuted or marginalized people? Minor Feelings, among so many other things, is an argument for a literature, or a way of life, that would acknowledge a shared \'unmastering\' of English.
Emmanuel Carrere Trans. by John Lambert
MixedThe Irish Times (IRE)[Carrère\'s] strongest writing is about the toughest material ... His essayistic style is instead an urgent sympathy, even when his subject is a creep such as Limonov ... There is, it has to be said, a sort of macho literary bravado in this performance of proximity to monsters. It affects too his essays on the writers he admires, which have a familiar adolescent flavour ... There is a great deal to admire in 97,196 Words, including the Sri Lanka piece, Carrère’s meditations on Jean-Claude Romand and a vivid, affecting essay about the ruined life of a young addict named Julie – all the more impressive for having been written at some remove, via photographs by Darcy Padilla. But a strain of boyish fantasy, mixed with middle-aged bathos, makes it too frequently hard to take Carrère seriously. (In this, he resembles Houellebecq, one of his most prominent admirers.) In a sequence of columns about his love life, written for an Italian magazine, Carrère comes off as an antique battle-of-the-sexes type; as is frequently the case, a hapless, can’t-help-it act is part of the deal.
Positive4ColumnsPinckney is a tireless relater: there is always a lineage or history he may cite, a personal or familial resonance to be sounded, some instance of embedded witness that demands to be told. Pinckney’s writerly calm is what allows him to see it all, and only sometimes to miss the point or blur the picture ... In such pieces, which are frequently book reviews elegantly redirected or expanded to say considerably more, Pinckney is a generous type of essayist, one who cannot leave his influences uncredited ... Occasionally, Pinckney’s rarefied milieu seems to inflict on him in these pages a peculiar tone-deafness, or deposit him at some hampering remove from the scene he’s describing...but for me the properly culpable moment comes later in the same essay, when Pinckney joins the 2002 Countryside Alliance march in London...an odd, dismaying lapse in an otherwise learned, precise, and engaging collection.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewAt their best, Davis’s essays resemble her celebrated short stories...which are wryly occasional...worked up from dreams, diaries, notebooks, letters of complaint and stray phrases from emails ... Essays One is dominated by pieces about writers and writing. It’s a joy to read Davis on John Ashbery’s wedging solid Anglo-Saxon words into his Rimbaud translations, on Lucia Berlin’s admirable monosyllables or on the young Thomas Pynchon’s \'heady sense of a smart college boy’s power over language.\' ... Davis’s essays about visual art...are consistently stranger and more compelling than her merely wise and brilliant reflections on literature ... Outside of a handful of more intimate pieces [Davis] is not really an essayist, critical or personal, in a determined sense. Or is she? In its skewed relation to the real, her fiction already lives on the outskirts of the form. No matter. One gets the impression that even the most fleeting of pieces in Essays One,...has been given the precise and playful Lydia Davis treatment: \'Subtly, or less subtly, you always want to surprise a reader.\'
Silvina Ocampo, Trans. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell
Rave4ColumnsThe Promise is [Ocampo\'s] sole novel, begun in the mid-1960s and left definitively unfinished at the author’s death in 1993. It’s an extraordinary book, for which only Borges’s description of her writing will do—clairvoyant. Ocampo’s narrative premise is elegantly unnerving ... A decade or so into its writing, Ocampo called her novel \'phantasmagorical,\' and this I suppose is what she meant: these figures manifest and fade again like ghosts, and it’s quite unclear if they have ever existed ... A novel about the writing of a novel, then, in which plot and character are at best ambiguous rumors. Nothing is certain about the doomed woman’s memories except that they keep coming, spooling out like the internal monologue of one of those solitary garrulous derelicts in Beckett ... Ocampo’s particular art is to have turned such obvious themes into a work of delirious precision ... We’re told that Ocampo struggled to finish her only novel because she had begun to suffer from Alzheimer’s; as her character’s past recedes and the empty ocean claims her, the author seems to be describing her own end. But if that’s the case, the lucidity with which she does it renders autofiction moot, because this long goodbye belongs to us all: \'I am looking at a vanishing world, the world that abandons me, that holds me in its arms and that I cannot restrain.\'
Oliver W Sacks
MixedThe Telegrah (UK)Sacks’s own adventure at the edges of seeing – the cancer itself proved curable, but his vision was permanently impaired – forms the core of The Mind’s Eye. It is a reflection, in seven essays, on the optical effects of certain neurological disasters and on the response of the brain to partial or complete blindness ... Sacks tells these stories with his customary sympathy and acuity ... But while there is a wealth of medical detail in these anecdotes, when compared to the vivid portraits of his predecessors, there is something oddly flat about Sacks’s writing in this latest compendium. The neurological portraits never truly grip or engage in the way the account of his own illness does, with its unconsoling and ambiguous outcome. There might be a non-literary reason for this: Sacks himself, he tells us, suffers from a lifelong inability to recall or recognise faces and is even known to blank friends, colleagues and family members. Perhaps he just doesn’t recall the texture of a consultation or encounter with the precision one might hope. Or maybe – because The Mind’s Eye is none the less deeply interesting – the topic simply deserves a more sustained and richer treatment.
RaveThe Irish Times...[an] elegant, intense essay on immunity ... Biss writes brilliantly about the swelling sense of vulnerability that came with her own pregnancy and the birth of her son ... Biss is as much alert to the metaphors at work in present attitudes to immunisation as she is to the medical controversies. (In fact at times they amount to the same thing; as she points out, the notion of an immune system is itself a metaphor.) ... On Immunity has the force and lucidity of Sontag’s assault on myth and pseudoscience, but it’s written out of a more uncertain personal and political predicament. Where Sontag wished to burn away the fog of euphemism that surrounded her own experience of cancer, Biss knows that in the case of immunity, metaphor is impossible to displace. She is writing about diseases (and cures) that involve us with the bodies of other people, that remind us we are never ourselves, entire and alone.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...[a] humane and witty guide ... Moran is a professor of English at Liverpool John Moores University; he sounds like a drolly exacting teacher. Like most authors who wish to make writers of their readers, he spends part of his lesson telling us what not to do ... But Moran’s advice is chiefly positive. He is especially good on rhythm, syntax and structure ... At the calm heart of Moran’s rhetorically affable book is an idea of adroit aplomb. He thinks a sentence should slide down the gullet like a clam, hardly touching the sides. His own prose is much like this ... As a primer in generous and lively writing, First You Write a Sentence is blithe and convincing. But it’s possible to care too much for order, cool and elegance, to overpraise the magician’s sleight of hand and miss the trick itself. Moran doesn’t care for verbal or syntactic acrobatics, for writing that draws attention to itself. But isn’t extravagance sometimes itself the message? Don’t we long for some friction, some grit in the oyster?
MixedFrieze (UK)... [a] brittle new collection ... Cusk is a keen observer of...ambiguous moments ... In Coventry, Cusk remains an incomparable writer about family, its intimate distances, its subtle tectonic shivers and lurching reversals ... One of Cusk’s peculiar skills is the sudden, abstracted, Henry James-like intuition of what is really going on behind the routines of daily, domestic life ... assertions about contemporary writers’ uncommitted distance from feminism, may already seem antique. So too Cusk’s plot-summarizing essays—mostly repurposed prefaces ... She’s an astute critic [of art and literature] but hardly a dazzling one, and at her best when finding close affinities with her subjects or turning from their work back to the world.
Gabriela Ybarra, Trans. by Natasha Wimmer
Mixed4ColumnsIt’s in some respects a daringly ambiguous debut, in others a book that doesn’t seem to notice its own lapses or lacunae ... it’s as if 2011 were a lifetime ago, and just as obscured by its documentation as the kidnapping and murder: nothing in The Dinner Guest is quite within a reader’s reach. This distance feels justified in the opening chapters, when despite the vivid awfulness of the abduction, the details are confused ... In the second part of the novel, things are only apparently more immediate ... an example of something Ybarra is very good at: describing a failure to adequately face the reality of death, which sometimes happens when a young adult loses a parent ... reflections, however, are afforded little space in The Dinner Guest; mostly the book proceeds in a neutrally reporting register: the structure may be fragmentary, but the writing is deliberately flat and muted, tending to the present tense and a simple past, quite untroubled by lyricism, irony, or despair ... There are places in The Dinner Guest where Ybarra seems to aspire to a more self-conscious literary project ... What are we to make, though, of Ybarra’s (or is it only her character’s?) retelling of the death of Robert Walser, whose 1917 novella The Walk she has been reading, and her decision to reprint a famous photograph of his corpse lying in the snow? It seems like simple overreach: a book that has kept its own two narratives at such curious distance now invoking a work, and an image, that will supply some missing insight or profundity. The more generous reading is that the awkwardness belongs not to Ybarra, but to a character she knows, and wants us to know, is not telling us all she could or should have.
Rave4ColumnsThe English writer Max Porter’s antic new novel is presided over by a monstrous rural personification of chaos, decay, and renewal ... I am not going to tell you a thing about the dead-of-night magic-realist denouement of Lanny, except to say that it is written, like the whole novel, with an extraordinary verve that’s by turns lyric, eerie, and comical ... Rivulets of italic conversation literally twist and turn on the page, forming typographic meanders and little orphaned oxbow lakes of text. Graphical experiment aside, this whole strand of the book amounts in itself to a small comic masterpiece, capturing the energy and rue—sometimes the malignity—of contemporary home-counties vernacular ... Porter’s main characters have discrete and engaging voices ... Porter may also have written the first great Brexit novel: a book about the deepest, oldest, strangest sense of itself that England possesses.
MixedThe GuardianAs a study in vulnerability, but also in types of speech and silence that surround the ailing body, The Empathy Exams is exceptional ... [but] you could object that too much of the personal revelation in this book—the bruised past and bruited pain—is of an order that would not alarm anyone out of adolescence: drink, drugs and bad sex presented as a kind of radical dysfunction. It\'s the same with some of Jamison\'s forays into more violent milieus, which can feel (even if it\'s not true: she recounts a hideous mugging) like slick Vice-style slumming ... The more vexing problems, I think, are tonal and stylistic. For all her exacting attitude to her own place in the stories she tells, and her clear indebtedness (along with everyone else) to David Foster Wallace, Jamison gives in at times to dismayingly vague, cod-poetic or plain overfamiliar formulations ... The more instructive exemplars for the kind of essayism Jamison wants to practice are Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm ... Jamison at her best—in the essays on bodies, her own and others\'—is almost their equal.
Positive4ColumnsIf the book disappoints in places it is perhaps because the subjects of Malcolm’s profiles have grown less colorful in that time ... Malcolm’s real or affected surprise at [a subject\'s] jargon—see also a tin-eared and dated piece about the tonal perils of email—is the more deflating because she has been so often so good at paying attention to the lures and revelations of her subjects’ language. There remain, however, the considerable pleasures, and the significance, of Malcolm’s own language ... Such is Malcolm’s unsparing attention to the grotesquerie of the hearings that you long to know what she would have written, had she chosen to, about Brett Kavanaugh ... She has always been at her best in a room—artist’s studio, courtroom, or analyst’s office—setting out to describe a stranger and his or her motivations. Nobody’s Looking at You contains enough of that version of Malcolm—spending time with the aged owners of the Argosy Bookshop in New York, or attending the last broadcast by radio veteran George Jellinek—to make it a graceful (albeit nostalgic) successor to Forty-One False Starts.
Positive4 Columns\"In its pursuit of perilous ambiguity, The Water Cure has the quality of a folk or fairy tale ... At the level of its language, Mackintosh’s novel is something else again: a book so saturated with intense and unsettling imagery that its sentences feel like face-fulls of polluted sea spray. In places Mackintosh is just luridly metaphorical: a stillborn child resembles a glass paperweight, physical or emotional trauma is like a poison that leaches into hair, organs, blood. Or her prose is satisfyingly rhythmic and at the same time semantically untethered... At their most achieved, however, Mackintosh’s sentences are strict, cool containers for a variety of organic or atmospheric disintegrations ... In the shape of its narrative, The Water Cure is less extraordinary than in its texture. There is a predictability to the novel’s violent conclusion, as it mimics and reverses the closing scenes of The Tempest ... Which is also to say that Mackintosh has written a novel that feels sorely of its time.\
Positive4Columns\"Tóibín never labors his book’s point about the excesses of masculinity, preferring to focus on telling details and their analogues in his subjects’ work. Through them, he makes Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know an engaging study of influence, ambition, love—and their discontents.\
MixedThe Irish TimesA book that doesn’t quite engage or inform on the scale that It’s All in Your Head did ... It might be worth asking what kind of storyteller she is. At times a little flat footed ... O’Sullivan’s case studies sometimes feel very similarly structured, and only go so far ... On the other hand...there is clearly a value in directing this established medico-literary genre at an illness like epilepsy ... one of the larger, more humane achievements of her book is to have broadened our sense of what a storm in the brain might look like, or feel like.
Positive4ColumnsMarina Benjamin’s intense, vagrant, and personal book Insomnia is a timely arrival. But unlike the pop-science studies of sleep professionals...Insomnia wants to know what we might learn from our failure to sleep, from \'lurid nights\' and \'enervating mania\' ... Benjamin’s book is richly stocked with literary references to lack of sleep, its pains and occasional pleasures ... Her prose is written in sharp poetic fragments, and resembles in places the mordant aphorisms of E. M. Cioran, the Romanian philosopher who was reputed not to have slept for fifty years ... Benjamin has written a book that attempts stylistically to sound like its subject: fragmented, digressive, at times delirious ... This might be less, or more, than the sleepless reader wishes to hear. Benjamin’s approach to her subject is deliberately at odds with the current popular literature on sleep and its discontents ... It might keep you awake, but in solacing and inquiring company.
Positive4ColumnsMoshfegh gives us with amazing narrative blankness—page after page, month by month, chapter upon chapter—the frictionless feeling of the depressive’s days unspooling, dissolving ... The answers given by My Year of Rest and Relaxation are ambiguous, perhaps because (as in life) it is unclear what would constitute a clear look at disaster in the first place. At least, that seems the implication of this comically enervated novel’s ending, which comes up fast to meet us after all the longueurs that have gone before.
Mixed4Columns\"In its retelling of such histories, Sharp is a timely and acute book. You have to wonder, however, about how much work a term like \'sharpness\' can be made to do, and what it distracts us from ... her implication is that real writing involves some abjuring of action in the name of ambiguity, doubt, and subtlety of opinion. I suspect some of the women in Sharp may have demurred at that. And the distinction raises the suspicion that others in this period (black writers, feminist writers) might have been \'sharp\' in some of the same, and many different, ways ... There are good answers to that question, and Dean gives us some of them...But Dean is not the closest of readers, and so we don’t get much feeling for how these modes of skepticism and ambivalence are made and expressed in language.\
PositiveBookforum\"A smart and sleightful novel ... In some respects, there is an orthodox novel of late-twentieth-century American family life lurking inside Men and Apparitions, but the novel is more essay collection than cross-generational saga ... Most of [Tillman\'s] constellating of culture is sharp and sharply expressed ... Among its many other wise and witty lines of thought, Men and Apparitions is a vexing inquiry into the recent sexual-political past.\
Positive4Columns\"Several of the pieces in Feel Free are avowedly close to home: they describe her childhood and adolescence in north London, her sense in middle age of coming adrift from the screen-bound culture around her, the displacements involved in being a mixed-race English writer living in New York. Much of Smith’s personal is quite political, even when most shut-in or seemingly nostalgic … The least interesting essays in Feel Free are those in which Smith’s human subjects are skillfully but rather too clearly delineated, leaving little room for inherent contradictions … Perhaps it’s not surprising that the best of Feel Free comes in Smith’s extended book reviews, written for Harper’s, where the constraint of subject seems also a license to build and inhabit the contrary sort of character she wants in her novels.\
Mixed4Columns...the basic story is never less than engaging and instructive ... As Mokhtar gets near to his goal, Eggers keeps us close to the complex, terrifying texture of life in Yemen as things unravel ... As a tribute to its subject, it’s exemplary, and one can already imagine the sympathetic Hollywood version, perhaps played a little more for laughs. But as a piece of reportage, with all that implies of skepticism and scope? For all the details of rural roadblocks and AK-47s, the book is pretty light on the actual geopolitics of the Yemen conflict. And Eggers is at times weirdly nonjudgmental ... A stricter brief might have forced Eggers to a more exacting and engaged version of Mokhtar’s undeniably intriguing tale; instead the book reads at times like an extension of the marketing literature for an expensive, if hard won, product.
Susan Sontag, Ed. by Benjamin Taylor
Mixed4Columns...in Debriefing you will find first-person narrators whose sententious, importuning tone sharpens aphorisms that wouldn’t sound out of place in Sontag’s greatest essays—or in her diaries, where she rehearsed the style ... Do these stories stand on their own, free of the essays to which they are closely affianced, independent of the influences Sontag felt, if her journals are to be credited, with real pain? The answer may depend on what we mean by 'story.' There are only eleven pieces in Debriefing—eight were gathered already in I, Etcetera (1978)—and a good third of them are simply tone deaf, straining, or dull ... It is when Sontag scants all short-story or novelistic convention and passes off memoir, travel diary, Perec-style inventory, or heightened reportage as short fiction that she actually excels.
PositiveBookforumMcBride's descriptions of sex, from Eily's perspective, are among the most remarkable passages in the novel ... So arresting is the language McBride gives to her female protagonists, it would be possible to feel aggrieved that so much of The Lesser Bohemians is dominated by a conventional narrative voice and prose ... If The Lesser Bohemians is the more affirming twin of McBride's first novel, its ultimate calm seems only to half-drown a disquieting past, or eruptive future.
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
PositiveThe Guardian...[an] unexpectedly engaging history of word processing ... In part, Track Changes is one of those histories of the everyday in which the broader claims are often open to question. 'Each of us remembers our first time' using a word processor, Kirschenbaum claims. But this is surely true only of generations that witnessed notable innovations ... [the] variety of attitudes and habits proves mildly less interesting than the history of the technology itself, because the former amounts to very little in the end ... Track Changes is as much the story of their distracting emotions as it is of what they wrote and how.